Egypt’s revolutionary process is a complicated convolution of people power and military co-optation. To succeed, it will have to take on the army anew.
Now that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been forced from power, one question appears to be burning on everyone’s lips: is this Egypt’s second revolution, or is it really just a coup d’étât? Anyone outside of Egypt who still pretends to have a straightforward answer to this question is either lying or deluding themselves. The truth is that periods of grave revolutionary upheaval never lend themselves to simplistic binary narratives. If anything, the answer is neither: this is neither a second revolution nor a coup d’étât. Why?
First of all, it’s not a second revolution because — as I pointed out at length in a recent essay — revolutions are not events but processes. In Egypt’s case, this process first revealed itself on January 25, 2011 and remains ongoing until today. For a major newspaper like The Guardian to write about “post-revolutionary” Egypt therefore seems bizarre; and note that The Guardian is far from alone in propagating this kind of widespread discourse. Indeed, the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian revolution only seems to have intensified over the past 2,5 years as various forces — the Muslim Brotherhood, the army, the US government — have sought to co-opt it.
Seen in this light, Egypt’s revolution has been marked by three main phases: the initial insurrection of January and February 2011 that toppled Mubarak; the second wave of protests that forced the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to finally call elections; and now the third uprising of June 30 — the “Rebellion” — that forced Morsi out of office. It is absolutely crucial not to underestimate the role of popular agency in these world-historic events. As I wrote earlier, none of this would have been possible without the power of the street.
But there is a major caveat here. While the Egyptian revolution surely constitutes one of the most epic insurrectionary episodes in recent history, the “material constitution” of Egyptian society has changed remarkably little since the overthrow of Mubarak. When the people of Egypt initially rose up in January 2011, they rebelled against a deeply entrenched and profoundly repressive military dictatorship that had deprived them of “bread, freedom and social justice” for as long as most people could remember. The main slogan in the first wave of protests unsurprisingly became: الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام — the people demand the fall of the regime. Note the important point that the Arabic word for “regime” (nizam) is perhaps better translated as system, which indicates that this is not just about a specific group of privileged people but about a whole set of oppressive social structures. The people demand the downfall of this system.
In this sense, the system’s initial reaction was every bit as brutal as it was predictable: it simply tried to quash the revolt. But when it became self-evident that this approach wasn’t quite working, the true ruling class shifted strategies. The army’s top-brass recognized that to perpetuate its rule, or at least secure its economic interests and privileged political position, it would have to appease the masses. And so the military command, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi — Mubarak’s long-time Defense Minister and personal confidant, known in ruling circles as “Mubarak’s poodle” — simply turned on their former master and pushed him from power.
This led to the 15-month rule of the SCAF, which was supposed to be a transition period giving way to Egypt’s first democratic elections, but which was marked by continued mass mobilizations to save the revolution from the army’s incessant attempts to stall the revolutionary process and repress the ongoing protests. Belying its own pro-democratic rhetoric, the SCAF brutally cracked down on the protesters, killing hundreds and imprisoning, torturing and maiming thousands. During the second wave of revolt, as hundreds of thousands again amassed in Tahrir Square, the main slogan of the revolutionaries simply became: “down with military rule.”
By early 2012, the SCAF realized that its direct rule over society was badly affecting its carefully crafted mythology as a patriotic institution aligned with the goals of the revolution, potentially endangering its economic interests. At that point, it was happy to just leave politics behind and let some eager civilians take the blame. It was clear, however, that the only social force organized enough to take on such a responsibility was the Muslim Brotherhood. And so the army called elections, knowing full well that the Islamists would win, but recognizing just as well that it was in its own best interests to retreat to the wings and let elected politicians solve their mess. In fact, the army ascertained that the Brotherhood would win the elections, allowing its members to man the polling stations, count the ballots and beat up “troublemakers”.
And yet, even if it successfully managed to change the face of the regime by organizing the drafting of a new constitution and the country’s first “free and fair” elections, the military command never truly left power. Even before Morsi was elected president with 51% of the vote, both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood realized that they would have to make some kind of pact whereby the army would be allowed to preserve its economic empire and its privileged political position, while the Muslim Brotherhood would be allowed to fill the regime’s gaping vacuum of legitimacy by trying to establish an Islamist “cultural hegemony” in order to entrench the system ideologically. The fact that Morsi replaced some of the military’s top command did not alter that institutional fact.
This brings us to the second point: this was not a military coup d’étât. At least not in the ordinary sense of the word. After all, even if the Muslim Brotherhood did at times seek to directly confront the military’s political influence, the military’s top command remained one of the dominant political and economic players even after Egypt’s first free and fair elections. It never took over state power because it never truly relinquished it: after burning its fingers on a disastrous year of military rule, it deliberately entered into a coalition with the country’s biggest and oldest organized political force. The moment that force imploded, as a result of its own incompetence and arrogance, the army simply dumped it and replaced it with someone more of their liking — piggybacking off a wave of grassroots protest and some of the largest mobilizations in world history to further entrench its hegemony.
This has led to an extremely dangerous situation in which a majority of protesters has now come to see the army as an enforcer of the popular will and a defender of the people’s revolution because it sided with them in the struggle to overthrow the deeply unpopular Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the military command has carefully and skilfully preserved the position of social dominance it acquired over the course of the past six decades of military dictatorship. Mubarak was overthrown, but his authoritarian state was never truly dismantled. As an Egyptian activist told us in an email yesterday, by siding with the streets in the overthrow of Morsi, the army and the state security apparatus even managed to “whitewash” their own previous lies and crimes and now seem more popular and less vulnerable than ever.
So if this is neither a coup nor a second revolution, then what is it? Perhaps we should see the overthrow of Morsi as the third phase in an ongoing revolutionary process; a wave of rebellion that once again forced the army to make an extremely awkward move it would otherwise not have made. In that sense, it is both an affirmation of people power and a simultaneous co-optation of that people power by the constituted powers-that-be. If anything, this is yet another attempt to hijack the revolutionary process: the army already controlled the state, now it controls much of the streets too. After manoeuvring itself into virtually every imaginable position — from the revolution’s ultimate oppressor to its heroic savior — the military command now seems to be getting away with it. The question is: how much longer?
Will new elections truly be able to realize the revolution’s demands of bread, freedom and social justice? Or will it be just another front for the continued rule of a military elite that, aided by the United States and its own economic empire, continues to pull the levers of the political system and society as a whole? If the next government fails to bring stability and the economic situation deteriorates even further, forcing it to turn back to the IMF with its disastrous austerity measures and neoliberal reforms, who is to say that the people won’t return to the streets for a fourth wave of revolutionary rage? What will the army do then? Will the streets continue to buy their revolutionary rhetoric and promises of democracy? Will the anger remain neatly confined to the ballot box?
As Mark LeVine just put it in a column for Al Jazeera, “the Egyptian military stands in the way of revolution, and the revolutionaries will again have to take it on directly.” None of this is to belittle the incredible achievements the revolutionaries have secured so far, and it is obvious that activists the world over will continue to follow and support the struggle of the Egyptian people with amazement and the utmost respect, as a shining example of fearlessness and perseverance that inspires us all. But it does mean that “free and fair” elections alone may not be enough to still the people’s immense hunger for bread, freedom and social justice. It may mean that the biggest stand-off is yet to come. And it certainly means that this revolution is far from over yet.